You who die, you who burn with chastity,
Sleepless night of ice and cruel snow!

(Stephane Mallarmé)

Real or imaginary, pure and diaphanous or strong and determined, driven by love or by hatred – what makes female heroines transcend the medium in which they are born and become immortalised in another is the depth of passion that drives their actions. From mythology to literature, from stage to painting, from poems to posters, these women continue to inspire.

Sensual Salomé

Some are bad. Some are killers, or traitors. They are cruel. Like Salomé, who demands the head of John the Baptist, which she receives on a platter. In her defence, she was just a girl and she consulted her mother, Herodias, to whom she then handed the platter. The Bible presents her as a victim, not a villain. But painters and writers chose to portray her as a seductress and a femme fatale.

In early Renaissance, she is seen dancing at her father’s party, not yet an inciter to murder. The 1460 fresco by Filippo Lippi portrays a girl in a white dress, the gentle folds and curves of her habit contrasting with the geometric floor pattern and the rigid architecture.

Later artists also focused more on the dance element of the story. Perhaps the most remarkable is Gustave Moreau, who studied the subject in over 100 sketches and paintings. In The Apparition (1876), it is the head of St John the Baptist that appears hovering aglow in the centre of the canvas (not on a plate). Apart from jewelry, Salomé is nearly naked, a translucent veil covering her arms, held together by a broch somewhere below her navel. In Salomé Dancing (1874) the girl is wearing a veil designed to reveal more than it hides, and a complex ‘tattoo’ on her torso, arms and neck, leading down towards her inner thighs.

If in her Bible début she was a girl, without a name, doing what her mother told her to do, painters have turned her into a wicked seductress who enjoyed the sight and smell of blood. By the end of 19th century she becomes a dangerous creature, both a virgin and a femme fatale, wrapped in mystery.

Symbolist painters and poets conspired to create a female character that is both ice and fire, to be desired and feared.

Inspired by Mallarmé’s Herodiade, and Gustave Moreau paintings, Oscar Wilde launched Salomé onto the stage and secured her long-lasting fame. The one-act play was written during Wilde’s stay in Paris; a typical symbolist drama, full of passion, poetry and tragedy, Salomé caused controversy, as expected and indeed welcomed by the author. Aubrey Beardsley’s languorous illustrations emphasised the erotic character of the play, which was duly banned in puritan Britain until 1931. The distinctive black and white drawings, with their sinuous and elegant figures were, like the play, decisively ‘decadent’.

Partly due to his own notoriety, Wilde’s play brought Salomé’s story to the attention of a public hitherto indifferent to her fate. The play was just a start, followed by numerous adaptations; among the most notable is Richard Strauss’ opera (1905), and Mikhail Fokine’s ballet (1908), and several screen versions including Ken Russell’s Salomé’s Last Dance (1988).

By sword and by spike

If Salomé was young and under her mother’s influence (who had the motive) no such attenuating circumstances are given to Judith. She is seen with the severed head of Holofernes and the murder weapon. Judith’s sin is to be beautiful, and brave, and a widow. Although she had many suitors, Judith remained unmarried. She comes from the fictitious village of Bethulia – God’s virgin.

The story of Judith is simple: during a war against the Jews, Judith goes to the enemy camp and ingratiates herself to the general Holofernes. One night, as he lies drunk, she decapitates him; without their leader, the Assyrians disperse and Israel is saved.

Judith’s character has to embody a mix of feminine charm – to make her attractive to Holofernes and gain his trust – and masculine aggression, to behead him. The fact that the book of Judith is a work of fiction with limited references to history didn’t affect her influence in art and literature since the 15th century.

Like Hans Baldung Grien in the 16th century, Franz von Stuck in the 20th chose to paint Judith naked: curvaceous, seductive. She is shown immediately after the killing, holding the head of Holofernes and the murder weapon, which looks unaccountably clean. In the 1926 Symbolist painting Holofernes is lying at Judith’s feet; she appears to smile triumphantly, clutching his (very large) sword. Other painters dared to capture the moment of the assassination.

Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head.

(Judith 13:7–8)

Caravaggio takes us to a stage on which the tragedy is played out by three characters - one young, one old, one nearly dead - in front of a scarlet drape. The dramatic light from the left falls on Judith, whose frown shows concentration and revulsion. Holofernes is looking up at her in horror, blood spurting from his neck.

Like the artist herself, Judith in Artemisia Gentileschi's painting is strong and determined. We are reminded of the artist’s struggle to succeed in a male-dominated society and her courage to call out those who wronged her. The scene of decapitation is frightening, there is blood and gore, there is dramatic lighting. Holofernes is trying to resist, he is struggling hopelessly, there is no stopping a woman enraged.

It is as if Artemisia selected to paint scenes of violence and revenge. Since the justice system allowed her rapist to walk free, she may have had a sense of vengeance by painting women punishing bad men.

The representation of Jael killing Sisera (1620) is a deceptively calm scene. A refugee in her tent, Sisera asked for water, Jael gave him milk (possibly spiked?), covered him with a blanket and murdered him while he was asleep, by driving a stake through his head.

But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.

(Judges 4.21.)

There are contradicting undertones of maternal and seductive attitude, leading to over-violent action, but the Bible presents Jael as a courageous heroine who fulfilled the will of God.

From medieval illuminations to symbolist paintings, from Canterbury Tales to Agatha Christie and from Mozart to metalcore, on stage and on screen, we follow the adventures of these brave women. Described in turn as dangerous femme fatale, prefiguration of the Virgin Mary or war hero, these romantic characters are like tall and elegant trees in a forest that has frequently, unsuccessfully, tried to silence them.